Swiss Supermarket Discoveries Part II: Culture Shock

Published by Wednesday, August 31, 2011 Permalink 0
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by Sonja Holverson


“Gourmet” bread with sunflower seeds outside and inside, along with nuts

Discovering Swiss grocery stores was eye-opening, at least to my American eyes. On the surface, the supermarkets look very similar, but once you delve in, it’s another whole ‘nother world.

My eating habits had to change drastically based on what was available in French-speaking Switzerland (which is different from German-speaking and Italian-speaking Switzerland) when I came to live here, and I now eat far healthier than I ever did the in the U.S.A. as an adult. First of all, traditionally the Swiss shop every day for fresh food and it’s not prepared food. You have to buy real ingredients and cook them yourself!

Fenouil Suisse (Fennel)

I arrived from San Francisco, where as a working gal who never had time to cook, I lived on the excellent salad, food and sushi bars readily available there.

The fact that there were hardly any (good) frozen foods when I arrived in Switzerland was all right, as I never ate that way in any case, but the store hours here were limited due to a social concern for families being together at dinnertime (novel?) and being home for their children after school (something like America in the perhaps in the 1950s). Most stores, including the supermarkets, are completely empty by 6:45 p.m., 7:00 p.m. latest. They even announce that the store is closing and it is a strong message.

There are some radical exceptions now, but plan ahead; only in rare locations, such as ski stations, can you find a store open on Sunday, although many train stations and gas stations now have a limited range of food. I nearly starved at first, especially when I was not aware of local holidays when everything was closed for days on end. A couple frozen items in the (tiny) freezer could have helped during those emergencies.

In some Lake Geneva towns, every store of any kind used to be closed on Monday mornings although most — but not all stores — are changing in that respect. Some expatriates and visitors perceive the supermarket opening hours in Switzerland as strange (the German-speaking part of the country is even more restricted in terms of hours), but it continues in most parts of Switzerland in large part because of labor laws, and especially in rural areas where stores may close at 4:00 p.m.. Wherever you are, find out the hours ahead of time. Better safe than sorry.

Swiss cheese (monk’s head Swiss cheese)

Most of my cooking knowledge from the U.S.A. consisted of at least one ingredient like Campbell’s soup (the good ole American way!) and they just don’t have that here, or for matter, any canned soup of any kind. The other ingredient I had difficulty finding was baking soda, which is in the baking section and called simply “bicarbonate.”
Rainbow (or purpose) Swiss chard & kohlrabi courtesy of Libookperson flickr

So I immediately bought a Swiss cookbook (in French of course which I did not understand well at first) and even though I did not always know what the ingredients were, at least I knew what they were called and that I could find them at the supermarket. The opening hours, however, are something to which I don’t think that I will ever adapt.

There have been radical changes in Swiss grocery shopping habits in the 21st century.

This daily trekking of the Swiss to the supermarket is based on a culture where mothers stayed at home and prepared the 2-hour lunch at noon and the father and children came home for the traditional Swiss family lunch. As a consequence, there are few households (still) that have a freezer of any significant size in their (small) refrigerators and some have only enough freezing space for ice cubes and maybe a small carton of ice cream.

And refrigerators have not changed much, despite a 9-year recession in Switzerland in the 1990s which changed the entire social structure and women found that gainful employment was no longer an option. Yet many women (and a few men) still do their food shopping daily and get home from their jobs in time to prepare lunch for the family.

The 2-hour lunch is on its way out as employees feel more pressured to spend more time at the office in times of massive layoffs. More people are eating close to their workplace, and children, many of whom go to schools with no lunch facilities because of the tradition of lunching at home, are snacking in fast food stands and yes, you guessed it: McDonald’s.

You might say ever since the arrival of Pringles, it’s been downhill, with the Americanization of nutrition-free snacks and prepared preservative-loaded food products arriving on the Swiss supermarket scene. Unfortunately, these snacks are considered “trendy” by young and less-young Swiss alike, and as a result, childhood obesity has been steadily on the rise ever since.

Yoghurt for good digestion

Nevertheless, Switzerland still boasts hundreds of brands of yoghurt and more than 300 types (not brands) of cheese. When I visit the U.S.A., I’m still shocked when I see a supermarket aisle of dry snacks (with nearly 1,000 different products) that is so long that one needs roller blades or a scooter to get down it. Because of these changes in Swiss society and eating habits, the availability of fast food and snacks has sadly increased at least 300% in the cities in the last 10 or 20 years.

Despite this, this is not necessarily what you want to eat when you come to Switzerland. If you take the time to look around, you will find that the Swiss supermarket is still your best bet for buying fresh picnic food and healthy snacks to carry while visiting the region.

Bon appétit!

A version of this article was originally published on Nile Guides.

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